Today’s post has to do with moral theory. As such, it is a bit longer than most.
In this post, I am going to discuss:
• The permissibility of killing an innocent child
• Preferential treatment (e.g., favoring one’s own children)
• Acts and Omissions
• Moral Weight vs. Moral Exceptions
• Moral Dilemmas
In an earlier post on “Killing/Capturing Terrorists”, I wrote that no person may kill a neighbor's child even to save his own life or the lives of his entire family. For example, if his only method for preventing their deaths is to drain a neighbor child of blood to extract an enzyme that may save his family, he may not do so.
Yet, I have also argued in discussions that it is permissible to kill an innocent child to prevent a nuclear bomb from going off in a distant city. For this, the scenario I use most often is that of a man with a shotgun seeing a child using a vending machine wired to detonate the distant bomb. Assuming that it is too noisy for the child to hear his shouts, he may shoot the child.
A reader, Eneasz, asked, in effect, where this dividing line is. Is it permissible to kill the child to save 1000 people? What about 1,001?
I conclude that the correct answer is that you may kill an innocent child to save 8,983.6 other lives, provided that at least 0.3 percent of them are physicians. If any physician has a theory on how to cure cancer, he will count for 1,253.3 common individuals. Convicted felons count as 0.03 persons.
Okay, clearly this answer is absurd. More importantly, any moral theory that claims to give answers of this type would thereby reduce itself to an absurdity. Morality simply does not work this way.
Basic Desire Utilitarianism
Desire utilitarianism holds that we use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote good desires and suppress bad desires. "Good desires" and "bad desires" in turn are desires that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. The common example that I use says that true beliefs are important to desire fulfillment, so an aversion to deception and intellectual recklessness is a "good desire."
On this theory, a good act is that act that a person with good desires would perform. A vicious (evil) act is an act that a person with good desires would not perform. We assess the act of killing the child on whether it evidences good desires (desire that we have reason to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote). So, we praise, condemn, reward, or punish the person who kills the child according to whether we seek to promote or discourage the desires evidenced by his action.
Note that a right action does not actually have to be caused by good desires. It simply needs to be that act that a person with good desires would perform. A person can report a child rapist to the authorities, not because he cares anything about children, but because the child rapist is a business competitor and he wants to rid himself of the competition. Yet, reporting the child rapist is still the right act because it is the act that a person with good desires (an interest in the welfare of children) would perform.
Killing an Innocent Child
So, the moral question is: When will a person with good desires kill an innocent child?
One factor that we must consider in answering this question is: How frequently will this come into play? We have good reason to psychologically mold people into performing the best actions in every-day circumstances more than for exotic scenarios that are never going to happen. We have to consider the question, "How many times will an average person face a situation when he will have to kill a child in order to prevent the detonation of a distant nuclear bomb?" If this is expected to never happen, then we do not need to be devoting a lot of energy into molding the person's desires for those types of situations.
How often can a person save the life of somebody in his family by killing a neighbor's child? If we count the possibility of acquiring useful organs, beliefs (though false, at one time widely held) that a human sacrifice could please the gods, using the neighbor's child as an innocent shield against a would-be attacker, or using him as a guinea pig for medical experiments, the question of when one may kill a neighbor's child is, indeed, an everyday question.
Answering this everyday question brings up the issue of, "If you may kill my child to save the life of somebody in your family, then I may kill your child to save the live of somebody in my family. If I may do so, then I may kill you or your child to prevent you from using the death of my child to save somebody in your family." We end up with a situation with a great deal of desire-thwarting going on.
The rational option is to adopt the position, "We are going to use our tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote an aversion to killing children. We shall seek to make this aversion strong enough to prevent people from killing their neighbor's children in all every-day situations in which it might be useful to do so. Instead, we will create a society of individuals who can accept the fact that the fates themselves get to decide who lives and who dies."
This aversion to killing children will not affect an agent's desires when it comes to saving children in trouble. Even as we use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote an aversion to killing other children, we allow parents to have a special affection for their own children. This means that a parent, faced with a choice of rescuing his own child or rescuing his neighbor's, can still have a stronger desire to rescue his own children than he has for rescuing his neighbor's, and favor his own children in these circumstances.
This brings up a related issue. Can desire utilitarianism defend the idea that parents can give preferential treatment to their own children?
There are two avenues that we take here.
First, desire utilitarianism is only concerned with malleable desires -- desires that can be molded through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. It makes no sense to call for using these tools where they have no effect. Thus, desire utilitarianism has a built-in place for the principle that 'ought' implies 'can' and 'cannot' implies 'it is not the case that one ought'. If parental affection is a natural (evolved) disposition that is not subject to change, then those who display it cannot be subject to moral condemnation.
Second, assigning 'favorites' is a recognized way of promoting the general welfare. A company will assign a vice-president to each of several regions. For example, there might be a Vice President for the Pacific Northwest. Each individual is expected to favor his own district. This Vice President will not be expected to sacrifice $5 in sales to bring about a $10 increase in some other region. He is expected to maximize sales in his own region. He may be prevented from harming sales in other regions, but he need not have a special affection for promoting sales in other regions.
The model for assigning vice presidents to regions can be used to justify assigning specific children to specific adults. "Your job is to take care of this child. Focus your attention on his welfare. Other adults will focus on the welfare of other children." So, we use our tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote this type of favoritism -- this type of special consideration for those things that become the responsibility of the person to whom they are assigned.
A blend of these two considerations is probably closer to the truth. We combine a natural affection that parents have for their own children with the moral benefit of assigning distinct responsibilities to distinct individuals.
On this basis, a President can show a preference for the welfare of the people in his own country. However, this preference comes with moral limits on what he may do to the people of other countries in executing this responsibility -- just as a parent's responsibility for the welfare of his children comes with limits on what he may do to the children of other parents.
Moral Weight and Moral Exceptions
Another set of moral concepts that we will have to take into consideration is the distinction between moral weight and moral exceptions.
An example of moral weight can be found in the case of a father who is out fishing with his child when the kid gets stung by a bee. Imagine the kid having an allergic reaction and the father's car will not start. There is another car nearby. The owner has left his keys in the car. Therefore, the father takes this car to get his kid to the hospital. The father's duty for the welfare of his son outweighs the wrong of taking the car.
An example of a moral exception can be found in the aversion to killing others. In fact, we do not promote a blanket aversion to killing others. Rather, we promote a moral prohibition against killing others except when the person killed is actually threatening significant harm. We are not, in this case, weighing the attacker's right to life against the victim's right to life. Rather, we say that the attacker has sacrificed or given up his own right to life, and may therefore be killed with moral impunity.
In matters of moral weight, the agent is expected to feel regret and remorse over his actions. He is expected to have an attitude comparable to, "I'm sorry, but there was nothing else I could do. If I had not taken your car to get my sick kid to the hospital, he would be dead." However, in the case of moral exception, no apology or residual regret is expected. The person who kills an attacker owes nobody an apology.
To the desire utilitarian, a case of moral weight is one in which two "good" desires come into conflict. A father is expected to have a desire to take care of his child. He is also expected to have an aversion to taking the property of another. In the scenario above, the two desires come into conflict. Desire utilitarianism states that the aversion to borrowing property should be weaker than the desire to save the life of one's child. So, the father may take the car. However, the outweighed aversion still exists -- still should exist, and it leaves an emotional residue. This aversion is the source of the regret and remorse that lingers as a result of his actions.
The case of an exception recognizes the fact that desires can be complex. Desires can be as complex as the propositions that make up their object. As a result, it is possible to promote a desire that, "I not kill anybody who is not aggressively threatening others with immediate harm." This type of desire allows a person to kill in defense of self and others without the slightest twinge of regret or remorse.
Once again, I remind the reader that it makes little sense to design morality for strange and exotic situations. We have enough to do in using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to create the desires and aversions that will serve people in average, every-day circumstances. These every-day desires might have strange implications when an agent finds himself in a highly improbable situation. That is simply a fact of life.
So, let us go back to the case of killing the innocent child to save others.
The principles that I identified above state that we are going to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment that will serve people well in average, every-day events. Those desires and aversions will include an aversion to killing others (except when the 'other' is an attacker and the killing is in defense of non-aggressors). The aversion to killing will be stronger than the aversion to letting die. We will expect people, for example, to have a lower aversion to letting their child die than to killing a neighbor's child to save their own.
However, when the number of people that we would be letting die gets exceptionally large, a person with good desires can find himself in a situation where compassion for others outweighs his aversion to killing.
This is certainly a case of weight, not a case of exceptions. The person with good desires who kills an innocent child to prevent a bomb from going off is going to feel absolutely horrible about it. The thwarted aversion to killing a child will cause him to constantly go over the incident and wonder if there was anything else he could have done. The two desires -- the aversion to killing the child and the desire to save lives -- would have tried to find an option that would have fulfilled both desires, and forced a choice only if such an option could not be found.
There is no specific point at which the aversion to letting lots of people die will outweigh the aversion to killing an innocent child. The every-day world in which we live simply does not provide us with an opportunity to fine-tune these considerations. In the everyday world in which we live, we are (or should be) concerned only with promoting an aversion to killing the innocent and promoting a somewhat weaker aversion to letting die that will prevent killing in common everyday circumstances.
Desire utilitarianism holds that moral dilemmas truly exist. They can be found in cases where a person is in a situation where all possible actions will thwart a strong desire that a good agent would have. The parent who has to decide which of her two children she will allow to be killed (otherwise both will be killed), or the person who must kill their own child to save a city from destruction, are instances of moral dilemmas. The good person will be terribly torn over these options. In the case of a true moral dilemma, the conflict will likely be psychologically destructive.
We can draw one more implication that will further illustrate this system. We have talked about the person who must kill a child to prevent a distant bomb from going off. Let us add the complication that the child he must kill is his own child. Here, we allow that a person should find it easier to kill a stranger's child to prevent the nuclear explosion than to kill his own child. In fact, I suspect that we may even forgive the person who is simply unable to kill his own child. The moral dilemma -- the conflicting desires -- may psychologically destroy him, but he is simply unable to find the will to kill his own child to prevent the detonation of the bomb.
The preference for one's own children will have an effect in the exotic and unlikely circumstances that everyday morality simply does not prepare us to handle. In this case, it means that he must have more lives on the balance to bring himself to kill his own child than it will take to kill a neighbor's child.
Imagine a movie scene where Character1 is in a position where he must kill his own child to prevent a horrible act. He cannot bring himself to do it. However, he is able to stand by and do nothing while Character2 kills his child. He breaks down at the end due to the loss, but he can let this happen.
In the realm of desire utilitarianism, this is a perfectly understandable and moral option. Morality aims at controlling our actions in decisions that we make every day. It yields sometimes extremey unpleasant results in exotic circumstances that we all have reason to hope that we can avoid. There are situations where even the good person -- particularly the good person -- will find it hard to live with the choices he must make.